Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Asking the right questions about the Lord's Supper

Martin Luther asks some good questions about the Lord's Supper in the Small Catechism:

What is the Sacrament of the Altar?
What is the benefit of such eating and drinking?
How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?
Who, then, receives this Sacrament worthily?

Or in the Large Catechism, he summarizes with these questions:

What is it?
What are its benefits?
Who is to receive it?

These are good questions, the right questions, because these are the questions that the Scriptures answer.

Other questions about the Lord's Supper are not as good. But they are very common.

For example, in Bo Giertz's brilliant work The Hammer of God, a fictitious question and answer session takes place in the home of a Swedish peasant, including the following exchange:
    "How often should one go to the Lord's Supper?"

    It was again [Pastor] Linder who answered.

    "That depends a little on how you ask the question.

    "If you ask how often you must go, it may indicate a stubborn heart that wants to buy God's grace as cheaply as possible and that does not really want to be with Jesus. If that is the case, you must pray God to convert you.

    "If, on the other hand, you ask how often you ought to go, our Lord's answer is, 'As oft as ye do this,' and that means that you must do it oftener than the great majority, who commune four times a year just for the sake of propriety.

    "And if you ask how often you may go, you are showing the right hunger for grace, and my answer then is: Go in the joy of the Lord as often as you can. But do not be careless about the preparation!"
There is much wisdom in the answer given by this Lutheran pastor. Those who, feeling no hunger for the grace of God held out in the Lord's Supper, imagine that the question is about how often it should or must be received demonstrate that the Law has not yet accomplished its work of crushing the sinner and causing him to know the hunger for God's grace in the Holy Meal of forgiveness.

Those, however, who hunger for grace do not bother with such silly questions as "How often must I or should I go to the Sacrament?", just as those who are starving don't waste their time asking, "How often must I eat?" They simply go as often as they can, as Luther says in the Large Catechism, "Indeed, those who are true Christians and value the Sacrament precious and holy will drive and move themselves to go to it" (Large Catechism, Part V, par. 43).

How often can Christians receive the Lord's Supper? How often can they "drive and move themselves to go to it"? The answer to that crucial question depends, of course, on how often the Sacrament is made available to them. That's another good question: How often is it offered at their church?

And so some are prone to repeat the pattern of useless questions:

"How often must a Lutheran church offer the Sacrament?"
"How often should a Lutheran church offer the Sacrament?"

These are questions that, frankly, our Lutheran Confessions do not address.

The Confessions do not dictate to their own subscribers what they must do or should do. No, those who originally subscribed their names to the Confessions did so in order to proclaim to the world what they, the subscribers, did do, and why. The Confessions didn't dictate their practice. The Confessions described their practice.

The same should be true today.

But apart from the descriptive nature of the Confessions, there's another reason why they do not address questions like "How often should or must a Lutheran church offer the Sacrament?" Because they're the wrong questions. They're bad questions.

They're bad questions because the Scriptures do not speak this way regarding the Sacrament. They're bad questions because they stem from a law-oriented point of reference, a legalistic spirit that would limit rather than expand the use of this Means of Grace.

It's true, Jesus does command His Church that His Supper should and must be celebrated. "Do this in remembrance of me." It's not optional. It's not something the Church is free to despise or leave undone.

But just as those who hunger for grace do not bother with such silly questions as "How often must I or should I go to the Sacrament?", so the original authors and subscribers of the Lutheran Confessions didn't bother with such silly questions as "How often must our churches offer the Sacrament?"

The questions answered by the Lutheran Confessions are better questions, questions that find their basis in Scripture:

What is man's great malady that drives his constant need for this Medicine?
Which are the enemies that surround the Christian and threaten our faith, increasing the urgency for this pledge and seal of forgiveness?
How often does Christ permit his Church to use the Sacrament?

And having answered all these questions from Scripture, the Confessions then answer the simple question, "How often do the churches of the Augsburg Confession offer the Sacrament?"
    For among us masses are celebrated every Lord's Day and on the other festivals, in which the Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved. (Apology, XXIV, par. 1)
So rather than ask, "How often must a Lutheran church offer the Sacrament?" or "How often should a Lutheran church offer the Sacrament?", those who share the conviction of the Lutheran Confessors need only ask, "How often may a Lutheran church offer the Sacrament?"

Now that's the right question.

And the answer is as simple as the answer given by Pastor Linder in The Hammer of God. "Offer it in the joy of the Lord as often as you can. But do not be careless about the preparation!"

Most congregations will probably come to the conclusion that they can offer the Sacrament at least every Sunday, just as the Lutheran Confessors did. The question is, will they?


Daniel Baker said...

Fantastic post, Pr. Rydecki. What I particularly admire is the distinction made between the dictative and descriptive understandings of the Confessions. When we understand that the Confessions should not be what we *have* to do, but rather what we *want* to do, blessings will abound.

Joe Krohn said...

I like this question best of all...it has resonated since Bailing Water was really rolling..."Why wouldn't you?"


Marc Manthey said...

I would suggest, Brother Rydecki, that the questions you cite are neither good nor bad questions. All are useful. None is perfect.

“How often MUST I attend...” or “MUST we offer the Lord’s Supper” is a useful question for discovering or demonstrating that there is no “must” involved in the Gospel. God’s grace in Word or sacrament is invitation, not command. Even the “mandatum” of Maundy Thursday was/is spoken to believing hearts.

“How often MAY I attend...” or “MAY we offer the Lord’s Supper” is a useful question for discovering or demonstrating the freedom that we have in Christ that allows us to respond to his gracious invitation willingly, gratefully and joyfully. We are not surprised when that is the response that comes from believing hearts.

‘How often SHOULD I attend...” or “SHOULD we offer the Lord’s supper” is a useful question in determining how responsible stewards of the mysteries of God will carry out their stewardship, both as individual believers and as congregations. When believers hear the Lord’s gracious invitation and understand that their response is one, not of obligation to the Law but of freedom in the Gospel, then they can make thoughtful, prayerful, responsible decisions based on all the factors that may apply in their individual lives or in their respective congregations. And they can be confident in knowing that, absent sinful hearts or actions, neither man nor God may judge them.

All the questions are useful, but none is perfect because none leads directly and inevitably to a complete answer. That’s why faithful and free stewards of God’s blessings need all those questions and, often, many more to reach a God-pleasing concluson.

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